Web Searches For Insomnia Surged At Height of COVID-19 Stay-At-Home Orders

Woman wide awake on bed.

A study published in the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) discovered a significant increase in the number of web searches for “insomnia” between April to May 2020, when the U.S. governments and governments all around the globe implemented stay-at-home orders to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study results indicate that “insomnia” has 2.77 million Google searches in the United States for the first 5 months of 2020 – a 58% increase compared with the same period from the past 3 years. Although the number of online search queries for insomnia trended downward from January to March and was consistent with the previous years, they surged upward in April and May 2020. This upward trend was also connected to the increasing number of deaths related to COVID-19 in the spring.

Kirsi-Marja Zitting, the lead author who has a doctorate in neurobiology and physiology and is an associate neuroscientist and instructor in medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said, “I think it’s safe to say, based on our findings as well as those from survey studies showing an increased level of insomnia symptoms in certain populations, that many people were having trouble sleeping during the first months of the pandemic.”

They published this study online as an accepted paper in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

Insomnia is characterized by the difficulty in staying asleep or falling asleep or frequently waking up than desired, despite allowing sufficient time in bed for sleep. Daytime symptoms that are related to insomnia include sleepiness or fatigue; feeling discontented with sleep; having concentration difficultly; feeling irritable, anxious, or depressed; and having low energy or motivation.

The researchers examined Google search data worldwide and in the U.S. between the 1st of January, 2004, and 31st of May, 2020. The data for the number of daily casualties from COVID-19 was copied from the freely available COVID-19 Data Repository upheld by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University.

Consistent with the previous years, online search queries for insomnia in 2020 occurred most frequently all through typical sleeping hours by 12 a.m. and 5 a.m., peaking around 3 a.m. According to Zitting, “This is the prime time for sleeping, so all these people were awake and probably wondering why they could not sleep.”

Zitting said that she intends to continue tracking the online search queries for insomnia due to concern about the potential long-standing effect of the pandemic on sleep quality. “While acute insomnia, naturally triggered by stress or a traumatic event, will often go away on its own, I’m worried that the longer this pandemic persists, the greater the number of people who continue to develop chronic insomnia,” she said. “And chronic insomnia can be difficult to treat, unlike acute insomnia.”

In a new clinical practice guide, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) advises clinicians to use multi-component Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) to treat chronic insomnia disorder in adults. Another AASM clinical practice guide recommends that several medicines can be considered for treating chronic insomnia in adults, especially in patients whose symptoms persist despite treatment or patients who cannot participate in CBT-I or in select cases as a temporary adjunct to CBT-I.

The President and Fellows of Harvard College, the National Institutes of Health, the William F. Milton Fund of Harvard University, and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine Foundation supported the study authors with funds.

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